13 August 2013

Odd Kid Out: Secondary Language Concerns for a Monolingual Family

It's no secret that we're all attempting to learn Dutch in this house. Some days it goes better than others, and some days it seems as if it hardly happens at all. Little Man went back to school yesterday and I've been taking Dutch lessons since March. Mark took a class back last autumn, and we found what looks like a decent program to reinforce what we already know and build off of that. We attempt to read Dutch children's books with the Little Man. There's a purposeful, daily attempt to expand our knowledge.

Just a small pile of some of our "homework"


Yet even with all this learning time, we're not totally immersed. We continue to speak English at home (though sprinkled with as much Dutch as we can manage). TV shows (for adults) imported from America and the UK are not dubbed, instead subtitles are added to the bottom. So many people speak English that it's very easy to fall into the habit of, "Sorry, mijn Nederlands is niet goed. Spreek u Engels?" (Sorry, my Dutch isn't good. Do you speak English) and getting a fully conversationally fluent answer back in English. Even the older kids on the playground often know enough English that they can hold a decent conversation. But we continue to work on it - for us, but more importantly, for the Little Man. Sure, every parent wants their kid to succeed, but we've developed a different sense of urgency about it since moving to the Netherlands.

As a monolingual parent, you want your kid to fit in when surrounded by a different language. Little Man will always be a buitenlander (foreigner) to some extent - his birth in another country and his American parents will ensure that. Gaining a solid understanding of the language while growing up within the culture will lessen that "otherness."But for now, I can see when he plays at the playground that the kids his age don't really know what he's doing. Part of that is being three and not being self-aware enough to introduce yourself to someone new, so why would you also think to say "Ik ben draak" (I'm a dragon) when you run up to a new friend, growling and flapping your arms? But if the other kids are talking to him about what he's doing, he's not getting it. At least not yet.

You also want your child to have as many opportunities for success as possible, and much of a child's success is (for better or worse) determined by their school performance. The better the child's grasp of the language, the more successful they will be. Having parents actively participating in the learning process is another indicator of a child's academic success. If we want to be able to help when he's struggling with homework or when he has new material, we have to know what the instructions say or what the teacher may send home for classroom notes. We don't want Little Man to be "labeled" or put at a learning disadvantage because his (or our) language skills have held him back.

You want to be able to communicate with your kid's friends. Parents of other children might not be comfortable with you watching their kid during after school projects or play dates if you can't communicate with them, and it's not necessarily fair to rely on your own child to translate.

We keep in mind that he is "only" 3 years old. We know that he has friends that speak English and Dutch. We know that he has many years of school before him. Our own understanding of Dutch is improving. But the concerns will continue to be there - so we all continue plugging away at our Dutch.

4 comments:

  1. The other day I had to ask B what C said. He was doing something with a book and saying 'open and closed'. I felt like such an idiot :)

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    1. Haha! Too funny. It's hard to tell when it's still toddler-babble and a foreign language (also in toddler-babble). At least you have a built-in translator!

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  2. Hi. Just a small remark from a Dutchy living in Bangladesh and therefore is raising bilingual children: To keep them comfortable in their Dutch, and build vocabulary, we Always speak Dutch at home whilst with the 4 of us, never any English. If they can't find the word in Dutch, and say for example scissors in a perfectly normal Dutch sentence, we correct them. If you want for your kid to be bilingual, it is best to do it this way - he will learn perfect Dutch when he goes to school! :-)

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  3. Hi, and thanks for sharing your story and perspective! And you're right, once he gets into full-time school his acquisition will increase dramatically. It's interesting, because we often receive very different advice about bilingualism. The peuterspeelzaal recommends that we speak as much Dutch as possible at home, knowing that we're all learning; but I've also received recommendations for only speaking English at home. It's hard to keep the languages too separated right now since he frequently asks "What do we call this in Dutch?" Since we want him to continue to be interested, we tell him! =)

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